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Rosen: The meaning of a ‘more perfect union’

The elegant phrasing of the preamble to the Constitution started with “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…”  In the few dozen words that followed, it went on to declare the goals of this document that would create the framework of an exceptional form of government, unique in world history.  One with no kings, no titles of nobility, no official state religion, and with no omnipotent central government.  Prominent among the limitations on government was a Bill of Rights that would protect the fundamental rights of individuals from government oppression, and the rights of the states from an overly intrusive federal government.

Preceding the Constitution was the Articles of Confederation, the founders’ first, makeshift attempt at writing a constitution in 1777, after our newly-founded nation declared its independence from Great Britain.  The Articles Of Confederation wasn’t ultimately ratified until 1781, after the end of formal hostilities in the Revolutionary War.  (Informal, but very real, hostilities between the U.S. and Britain continued until 1815 after the Americans defeated the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans, ending the War of 1812.)

From its very inception, however, it was apparent that the Articles of Confederation didn’t resolve essential differences between the states and wasn’t workable for the long term.   There were serious differences among the original 13 states over a strong or weak federal government; over states’ rights; about the make-up of Congress and its powers to levy taxes and regulate trade; about the election of presidents; and, especially, about outlawing slavery in the southern states.  (That last irreconcilable difference is one that also couldn’t be resolved in the Constitution to follow, and wasn’t until the Union victory in a bloody Civil War.)

A new document was drawn up at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and ultimately ratified in 1789.  And that’s the Constitution we have today, creating a Constitutional Republic affording the states a degree of sovereignty, and crafting checks and balances within the three branches of government.  The founders decidedly didn’t create a pure democracy which, they believed, would succumb to the tyranny of the majority, or “mobocracy” as some called it.

The founder’s ingenious model of government incorporated some democratic elements, like the House of Representatives, known of the People’s House, where seats were apportioned based on the population of each state.  And some purposeful republican elements like the Senate, known as the States’ House, where each state got two seats regardless of its population.  Other “anti-democratic” elements included the Electoral College; the presidential veto, which could only be overturned by a supermajority vote of two-thirds of each house; the Senate, not the people, appointing federal judges and the Supreme Court, serving for life; and the requirement that amendments to the Constitution be ratified by a vote of three-quarters of the state legislatures, again, not the people.

When the founders spoke of “a more perfect union” they were referring only to something better that the imperfect Articles of Confederation.  They had no illusions that any government could be perfect.  Nor did they believe the people were perfect.  The Federalist Papers has been called the instruction manual for the Constitution.  In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Neither this country nor any other has ever been perfect, is not now perfect and never will be perfect.  At best we can only be relatively better (or worse.)  Moreover, one person’s, one group’s, or one political party’s notion of “more perfect” is highly subjective and may be wholly contradictory to the vision of others, especially in our current era’s great public divide.

Unfortunately, that phrase, “a more perfect union,” has become a fanciful cliché,  wielded by politicians of every stripe.  Right now, it’s the Democrats with a radical left-wing agenda and monopoly control of Congress and the presidency, misrepresenting those  historic words to rationalize their control of our individual liberties and our lives in the pursuit of their authoritarian, intolerant, politically correct, woke, “perfect” socialist paradise on Earth.

Oh, and another thing.  The first three words in the Preamble, “We the people,” have also been hijacked by countless partisans, demagogues and outliers who claim title on the “common good,” and presumptuously claim to speak for all the people. On almost all issues, grand and petty, there is no monolithic “we.”  There’s you and me and them.  Always has been, always will be.

Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.

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